Transit advocates lobby, gingerly, for Tom Prendergast to take over the M.T.A.

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Lhota and Prendergast in Grand Central. (Marc Hermann via Flickr)
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Since Joe Lhota left the M.T.A. at the tail end of 2012 in pursuit of the mayoralty, the agency that serves 8.5 million people a day has been officially leaderless.

Now, some transportation advocates are talking up, if not explicitly endorsing, Tom Prendergast, the authority's interim executive director, for the job of chairman and C.E.O.

Denise Richardson, managing director of the General Contractors Association, told me Prendergast might make a lot of sense.

"First of all, Tom is a world-renowned transportation system manager," she said. "He was recruited out of the M.T.A. to go run the Vancouver system. He's worked at the M.T.A. in various capacities a large chunk of his career. He was instrumental in developing the plan that was so succesfully excecuted with the storm. He knows the financial issues that the M.T.A. faces and he knows the political environment. And he knows certainly why the public loves the M.T.A., and he knows why the public doesn't so much love the M.T.A."

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In short, he wouldn't have much of a learning curve. That's no small issue for an enormous and enormously complicated bureaucracy that's seen six leaders in six years and has a capital plan up for renewal in 2015.

Nadine Lemmon, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Albany legislative advocate, put it this way, in an email yesterday: "It is no surprise that his name may be floating around, given his understanding and experience with the agency. What transit advocates would like is: 1) someone willing to make a commitment to sticking around, 2) who will continue the strong inroads Joe Lhota made with the legislature and customers, 3) who can be a strong champion that can help secure the funding needed for the next capital plan."

Lemmon's second rationale seems of particular importance to advocates, one of whom told me (anonymously, for fear of getting ahead of Governor Andrew Cuomo), "Whoever’s chosen should be willing to stay around, not somebody who is going to leave in a year or a two.”

Gene Russianoff, head of NYPIRG's Straphangers Campaign, declined to express a preference for any particular candidate to take over. Asked about Prendergast, he said, "I like him."

At the moment, Prendergast is the M.T.A.'s interim executive director and Freddy Ferrer, who has explicitly said he doesn't want to be serving very long, is its acting chair.

Prendergast (whose official bio can be found here) was up for the job a year ago, the last time the M.T.A. needed a leader, and ultimately lost out to Lhota.

In 2009, the M.T.A.'s technocratic, widely admired then-chairman Jay Walder named Prendergast head of New York City Transit—the M.T.A. arm that manages its subways and buses—accompanying his announcement with the following statement: "Tom's work running one of the most technologically sophisticated systems in Vancouver will be invaluable as we take the M.TA. to the next level in performance and customer service."

It's not clear at this point how the governor plans to go about selecting the next M.T.A. leader, and the governor's office didn't immediately respond to a question about it.

Last time around, when Cuomo was filling the vacancy created by Walder's sudden, not particularly happy departure, he created a search committee composed in part of transportation experts.

In addition to Prendergast, the committee's recommendations included Nuria Fernandez (who Cuomo named chief operating officer of the M.T.A. instead), Federal Railroad Administration deputy administrator Karen Rae (who Cuomo named his deputy secretary of transportation instead), and Daniel Grabauskas, who used to head the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

"We don't make a practice of lobbying the governor's office on the governor's appointments," Richardson told me. "But the governor's a smart guy, and I'm sure that he will recognize the value of Tom Prendergast."

CORRECTION: Prendergast, if appointed, would be taking over as chairman and C.E.O., not chairman and executive director, as stated in the original version.